"1 Kroket," which opens Belgian creative jazz quintet Wofo's third album, 2011's Bark, begins with arpeggiated notes played by bandleader/composer Xavier Verhelst on his six-string bass. Here and especially on his harmonics-laden intro to album closer "A Bark Frae a Teethless Dog Is as Goode as a Bite," Verhelst takes full advantage of his instrument's capabilities. Indeed, while previous bandmember guitarist Walter Verschaeren contributed significantly to Wofo's sonic palette, Verhelst's mastery of crisp articulations high on the neck covers at least some of what the guitarist brought to the band. Meanwhile, new member pianist Stijn Engels broadens and deepens Wofo's range, adding a jazzy harmonic element. Based on "1 Kroket," one might also conclude that Wofo have become somewhat darker and more avant-gardist: Engels strums across the piano strings and holds down the sustain pedal to let low notes slowly dissipate against a solid 11/8 beat from Verhelst and drummer Tom De Wulf; after some tight starts and stops, Mattias Laga on bass clarinet and Michel Mast on tenor saxophone are howling and wailing over one another as the rhythm section cranks away beneath them. But it all fades out after scarcely two minutes, and after an atmospheric free-time Balkan-tinged intro, second track "Schatten" proves to be an appealing, jaunty number well suited to fans of 2009's Tweedt; the tempo hints at reggae but the bright reeds suggest a bit of Raymond Scott, and Verhelst's multi-layered writing is as involving as ever, with Engels' melodic lines finding contrapuntal space amidst the reeds. Solos by Mast and Laga are truly enhanced by Engels' harmonically advanced comping; the reedmen return the favor with a bit of understated background riffing when the solo spotlight shifts to the pianist.
After the jubilant Balkan dance of "Mockedonsko Kolo," highlighted by Laga's soaring clarinet and again pushed into creative jazz territory by Engels' chording, "The Singing of Numbers" is expansive, flowing modern jazz with a particularly rich tenor solo from Mast -- although (in typical Wofo fashion) bracketed by sprightly, angular, rhythmically complex themes. The ruminative ballad "Tournez la Page" features lingering reed harmonies and classicism in its chords, while "May Morning," continuing the thread of Tweedt's "August Sky" and "December Lights," is bright and cheery enough to soundtrack spring flowers bursting into bloom. After "Nix Nieuws" effectively melds a Philip Glass-like thematic structure with sophisticated jazz (and a rare feature for Mast on soprano), Wofo reveal they hadn't entirely expended their avant jazz fire on Bark's opening track, as "11 Kroketten" essentially picks up where "1 Kroket" left off and proceeds into tight arrangements suggesting an acoustic version of X-Legged Sally, Peter Vermeersch's '90s outfit that included Mast in its lineup. That feeling continues through the aforementioned final track (with the goofy title), which, in addition to showcasing Verhelst's bass talents, moves from chamberesque musing to tight grooving, high-flying modalism, and a hidden surprise. Fans of the consistently inventive Belgian creative music scene should snap up Bark without hesitation.